All in hand: Working with handheld devices conference

Last week, I chaired the “All in hand: Working with handheld devices conference”, which took place at the Royal College of Surgeon in London. It included various presentations from small- to large-scale UK museums discussing their experience with mobile interpretation.

Judging from the variety of projects presented during the sessions and at the exhibitors’ marketplace, it is evident that nowadays cultural organisations can rely on a number of technologies and approaches to support and deliver mobile interpretation: from more traditional mp3 players, which despite being considered outdated are still the most popular and effective mobile interpretation solutions available, to more sophisticated solutions such as multimedia guides, mobile phone tours (more popular in the US), iPhone and more recently even iPad apps.

Given the number of solutions available, it is important to try to help cultural organisations of all types and sizes to make the right decision when it comes to choosing the equipment, selecting a supplier, creating content and opting for a specific development approach (in house vs. outsourced, on site distribution vs. B2C). Through the examples of other cultural institutions that have been facing the same issues, the conference tried to provide some guidance in this respect.

Here are some common trends that have emerged from the presentations and the discussions that followed:

  1. In the past few years we have witnessed the tendency of cultural organisations to take ownership of the content development process. This is a sign that mobile interpretation is no longer viewed only as “nice to have” or  “a source of income” but also and especially as an integral part of the overall interpretation strategy.
  2. Control of the content development process also means ownership of the content, which cultural institutions can then reuse and make available for their audience on multiple platforms. Dirk Bennet, acting Head of Interpretation at English Heritage, for instance, is considering making their audio content available for download on the website. Matthew Cock, Head of the Web at the British Museum, is planning to add the British Sign Language videos and the audio description commentaries that were developed for the Multimedia Guide project onto the museum’s Website.  By repurposing the content on various platforms, museums can thus reach a wider audience.
  3. Being in control of the content development process often also means managing the content assembly process and updating the content over time. This is why open source or proprietary Content Management Systems are becoming a relevant factor in the choice of a supplier.
  4. Mobile interpretation is not about the technology. It is about the user experience and particularly the content. Museums should focus on telling a story that answers questions, creates emotions, inspires a response, rather than using the technology for the sake of it. When developing a mobile guide, there are several questions museums should ask: Is the technology functional to what you want to achieve, to the story you want to tell, to the experience you want to create, to the needs of your audience? Or is it simply a way to look “modern” and to get access to some funding? In other words, museums’ choices should not be driven by funding opportunities but, rather, by effective needs of the institution (type of collection, orientation issues, object display, etc.) as well of the audience. Other important factors that need to be considered when deciding which approach to use or which technology to adopt are: budget availability, organisational capabilities (staff availability, staff mentality, distribution areas, volunteers contribution) and the possibility of using existing content.
  5. Simplicity is also another important element to take into consideration when developing a mobile guide. Museums often tend to want to do too much by including more complex functionalities such as bookmarking, user commentaries, group games, when all that visitors need and expect is a tool that is easy to use, provides them with contextual information and, in the case of larger organisations, help them find their way around. This is why it is important to involve visitors at every step of the development process.
  6. Developing a mobile guide, as most of the presenters have pointed out, can take a long time and involves various stakeholders within and outside a cultural institution. This is why it is important to have a structure in place. Here are some of the key steps involved in the development process that were mentioned during the conference: feasibility study, audience research and evaluation, scripting, testing, producing, editing, translating, assembling, checking, uploading, updating etc. Promotion is also a key element of the development process. 

Many other important questions were discussed and addressed at the conference some of which are summarized in bullet points below. There were, however, several questions which seemed to be on everybody’s mind, especially in view of the budget cuts that are going to affect cultural institutions in the UK after the summer: What are the costs associated with the development of these solutions? Can my cultural institution afford it? Can we recover the investment costs? Do mobile guides generate revenues?

Unfortunately there is no straight answer to these questions, as it very much depends on the scale of the project, the price of the guide, the type of audience, and the nature of the site. It certainly helps to be able to resort to private sponsorship as in the case of the British Museum, or to take advantage of other opportunities like Antenna Audio’s Create Your Own Audio Tour competition, which offered the chance to win free equipment to museums that submitted their own audio productions.

Here is a list of additional applications and questions that were discussed at the conference: